21 Sept 2009
I'm sitting on the rim of a volcano, my feet dangling beneath me. La Soufrière on the Caribbean island of St Vincent is still active; it last erupted in 1979, clouds of grey ash showering the island and the neighbouring island of Bequia, nine miles away, for days.
Thankfully, no one was killed. Now, the crater is covered in lush green vegetation and only a whiff of sulphurous steam escaping from the side of the vast lava dome hints at the power beneath.
It's been a three-and-a-half-hour hike to reach the summit, through creaking bamboo groves with canes as thick as a man's leg, and humid rainforest, overtaken by sure-footed, machete-carrying marijuana farmers crossing the mountains to tend their crops. Slowly we've moved ever upwards into scrubland and the final, almost vertical, haul over old lava flows, scree tumbling with each step.
But now my blisters and breathlessness are forgotten. I feel euphoric – 4,048ft high and on top of the world. Our guide, Ellroy Brown, rummages in a small plastic bag and hands out yellow mangoes picked from his garden that morning. Gazing at the lush view below us, we bite into them greedily, sweet juice coating our chins and hands. Delicious.
Softly spoken Ellroy is a man of numbers and a man who, quite rightly, takes pride in his country's beauty. He tells us St Vincent is home to 12 different sorts of avocado, more than 100 different mangoes, three types of humming bird, 700 St Vincent Amazon parrots and a human population of 110,000. He urges us to recognise the sound of a whistling warbler, marvel at the vines gradually strangling its palm tree host and the discarded trumpet tree leaves like piles of crumpled newspaper.
I want to descend the rickety rope ladder into the crater's depths, but within minutes the summit is cloaked in a thick, wet mantle of cloud. We turn back, bouncing down the path, the humidity enveloping us as we descend. This time it takes just 40 minutes.
Our taxi driver for the week, the loquacious Herb, greets us in a glade below with chilled bottles of Coke. A picnicker hands out freshly barbecued chicken from a plastic bucket. Once again, it's delicious.
At the Wallilabou Anchorage we feast on yet another memorable meal: creole chicken, rice and peas, plantain and callaloo (a bit like spinach) fritters. We eat outside at trestle tables overlooking Wallilabou Bay, transformed into the busy and supposedly Jamaican port of ''Port Royal'' during filming of Pirates of the Caribbean. Discarded props make for a slightly surreal ghost town-cum-tourist shrine: wooden building façades left to moulder, stacks of hay bales revealed as polystyrene blocks and rows of wooden coffins as light as plywood.
My visit to St Vincent and the Grenadines provided just such a weird mix of the wonderfully memorable and the frustratingly not quite what it set out to be. More of the latter later. Definitely memorable were the stunningly verdant landscape, banana groves with each nearly ripe bunch encased in a blue plastic bag, aquamarine seas, spectacular waterfalls reached by rocking bamboo bridges, smartly pressed and smiling schoolchildren, vibrant markets and brightly coloured houses with single cows or goats mournfully tethered.
Twenty-one miles long and 11 miles wide, St Vincent is the largest of the 32 islands and cays – only seven of which are inhabited – that make up St Vincent and the Grenadines. Most people will have heard of Mustique, favourite tropical island of Princess Margaret, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. But few will have heard of its near neighbours Bequia and Canouan. The islands stretch in a 60-mile line 100 miles west of Barbados. One downside is there are no direct flights to any of the islands, although transfer time from Barbados is just 40 minutes.
Travel becomes an experience in itself once on St Vincent, with cars and pickup trucks double-beeping each other around the hairpin bends, near misses with chickens, goats and sauntering pedestrians (pavements do not exist on the single main road that snakes around St Vincent) and Herb's impromptu stops to haggle over a yam or a roadside takeaway.
Entry to the upmarket hotel Young Island is magical; stand on the mainland jetty and a boat sets off from the island 200 yards offshore to collect you and chug back gently to the fairy-lit island.
The ''express ferry'' to Bequia, the closest island to St Vincent, is a rocking hour-long ride for £7.25 return, sharing bench space with office workers and parcels. Known as Big Little Island, Bequia is only seven square miles but boasts lush views from the hillsides down to the white-sand beaches (St Vincent's are sparkling greyish black volcanic sand) and its busy capital Port Elizabeth. The market is touristy but fun with good-humoured haggling for tiger shark necklaces and T-shirts emblazoned with the St Vincent motto ''Sail Fast, Live Slow''. The Blue Tropic Café at the Bequia Beach Hotel provides a corner of calm with agreeably simple food.
The island of Canouan is an exhilarating 12-minute flight from St Vincent in a six-seater plane. A return trip costs just £11.25, but it still seems slightly bonkers to take a plane to the beach. The tiny three-square-mile island is a bizarre mix of the sophisticated – it's home to the five-star Raffles Resort, the Trump International Golf Club and the Tamarind Beach Hotel – and the basic. When the hotels first arrived, the island had no fresh water supply or electricity. The manager of the Tamarind Beach Hotel, which boasts mahogany rooms with terraces leading directly onto the beach, recalled how her first flight to the island was delayed by a goat on the runway. The ''international airport'' now has a fence and the Tamarind has a reputation for the best pizza in the West Indies (it's not unknown for the rich and famous to send their private planes from islands nearby to pick up a takeaway).
Tobago Cays – a nature reserve of five minuscule, uninhabited islands and the surrounding coral reefs – is only accessible by boat. Private yachts and hired catamarans bob inside the shallow lagoon where I snorkelled, nose to nose with endangered green turtles in the sea grass. The Cays are a 90-minute power boat ride from St Vincent or 15 minutes from Canouan. We docked at nearby Mayreau Island – picture postcard white sands and coconut trees – for a hamburger and chips at the Saltwhistle Bay Club, admiring the view from straw-roofed tables. A beach doze followed before the long power boat trip back to the main island, our driver Jonah expertly steering the boat through the swells.
So, for natural beauty and relaxation with occasional flurries of activity, St Vincent and the Grenadines make a good holiday destination. But there are a few problems in paradise: service can be surly, hot water occasionally proves to be a request too far and – in a misplaced bid to appeal to tourists – menus are frequently pretentious.
Beachcombers Hotel in St Vincent is a case in point. It looks fabulous: bougainvillea tumbling over orange, yellow and blue buildings, humming birds and tree frogs in the tropical gardens and splendid views over the bay. But my stay there was so disappointing it was almost funny. My room was a depressing brown, dimly lit, with a choice between stuffy or ear-splitting air-con, the shower failed to provide any hot water for three days (I had to beg to use the shower in the ''spa'') while eye-rolling and teeth sucking was on the menu every morning.
Still, despite the odd grumble, nothing could spoil that memory of sitting on the summit of a volcano and silently watching parrots crashing into the forest treetops as dusk fell. Magical.